TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey teenagers caught texting or posting sexually explicit photos online could avoid prosecution under a measure that would give first-time offenders the chance to complete a diversionary program.
State Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt of Camden, who is sponsoring the bill, said it's important to teach teens the potential consequences of their actions without saddling them with a permanent criminal record.
"We need to create a path that places education and forgiveness before arrest and prosecution," said Lampitt, a Democrat. "Young people – especially teen girls – need to understand that sending inappropriate pictures is not only potentially illegal, but can leave an indelible mark on them socially and educationally."
The bill won unanimous support from both parties in a committee and is headed for the Assembly floor. A version must also pass the Senate for it to become law.
The measure targets "sexting," the practice of sending sexually explicit or suggestive photos by cell phone, as well as e-mailing similar images and posting them online. It's a nationwide problem that has confounded parents, school administrators and law enforcers.
Prosecutors in several states including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Wisconsin have tried to stop it by charging teens who send and receive the pictures. Charges include possession and distribution of child pornography. Lawmakers in New Jersey agreed that criminal prosecutions are better avoided when possible.
"There are certain aspects (of life) in which the criminal law should not be involved, and this is one of them," said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican from Morristown.
The legislation was initially introduced last summer, months after a 14-year-old New Jersey girl allegedly posted nude pictures of herself on MySpace and was arrested. She was charged with child pornography and distribution of child porn but eventually received probation and was ordered to undergo counseling.
A 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy showed that roughly one in five teens – including 11 percent of girls ages 13 to 16 – have sent a nude or seminude picture or video of themselves to friends or posted one on a website.
County prosecutors would get to decide who participates in the diversionary program based on certain guidelines spelled out in the bill. For example, the program would be open only to those who had no juvenile record and teens who didn't realize the potential consequences of their actions.
The legislation requires the attorney general's office to create a program to teach teens about the criminal penalties and social consequences of sending or receiving nude or seminude images through cell phones or computers. The educational components would include lessons on how the uniqueness of the Internet can produce long-term and unforeseen consequences after photographs are posted and the connection between cyber-bullying and the posting of sexual images.
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said his office hasn't been consulted but that it would review the bill and make recommendations.